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The Merchant of Venice
William Shakespeare


THE PLAY, continued

THEMES

  1. LOVE AND WEALTH

    Many works of literature deal with conflicts between love and money. In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare takes a more unusual approach to this subject, treating love as just another form of wealth. Love and money are alike, Shakespeare seems to be saying, in that they are blessings to those who can pursue them in the right spirit. On the other hand, those who are too possessive, too greedy, will get pleasure neither from the pursuit of romantic love nor from the accumulation of wealth. Bassanio sets out to win Portia's love, solving his money problems at the same time. Shylock, in contrast, is a miser who hoards both his gold and his love and loses his daughter and his riches simultaneously. Antonio demonstrates the love of one friend for another by pledging his own flesh to guarantee a loan for Bassanio. He, too, is rewarded for his generosity. Not only do Antonio's ships come in at the end of the play, but Bassanio's fortunate marriage enriches Antonio as well, bringing him Portia's loyalty and friendship.

  2. MERCY VERSUS REVENGE

    A number of Shakespeare's plays are concerned with the question of justice and the nature of legitimate authority. The Merchant of Venice poses the question of whether the law should be tempered by mercy, or whether it should be morally neutral. If neutral, then the law can become a tool in the hands of men such as Shylock, who use it to further their own personal vendettas. In Act IV of the play, we find Portia arguing that the justice of the state, like God's justice, ought to be merciful. Mercy does triumph eventually in this courtroom scene, but not until Portia reveals a legal loophole which makes it possible for the Duke to rule in her favor. In the world of this comedy, at least, the conflict between morally neutral law and merciful law is easily resolved. Readers do disagree, however, as to how well the theme of mercy's triumph over revenge is carried out by the "good" characters' treatment of Shylock. You will have to decide for yourself whether Shylock's punishment at the end of the trial scene is truly merciful- or whether he in fact becomes the victim of an unconscious streak of vengefulness in the character of Antonio.

  3. HARMONY

    As you read the play, you may find sub-themes which contrast other sets of values, in addition to those of mercy and revenge. For example, the test of the three caskets points out the truth that external beauty and inner worth are not always found together. On the whole, however, the play stresses harmony, not conflict. The play seems to tell us that in a well-balanced life the pursuit and enjoyment of money, romantic love, and deep friendship will not necessarily conflict. It is possible to experience and enjoy all of these things- but only if we do not place undue importance on gaining any one of them.

    The theme of harmony is stressed throughout the play by the use of music and musical imagery. Portia and Lorenzo both praise and enjoy music for its power to ease sorrowful moments and make us more reflective in times of happiness. Notice, too, that Shylock- the character who is out of harmony with his society- fears the power of music. He even orders his daughter to close up the house to keep out the music of the masque.

  4. FRIENDSHIP

    It is not only romantic love that is discussed as a form of wealth in The Merchant of Venice. Friendship, too, is an important aspect of "love's wealth." Today, you sometimes hear the idea expressed that a husband and wife ought to be each other's best friends; a happy marriage takes precedence over outside friendships. Shakespeare's audience would no doubt have found this notion rather bizarre- suitable, perhaps for starry-eyed and headstrong young lovers, but hardly the basis for life-long happiness. In the play, Portia demonstrates her depth of character by understanding that her husband's happiness depends on his ability to discharge his obligations as a friend. Thus, his loyalties have become her loyalties. Much more than today, the Elizabethans expected friendship to be the glue that held together business relationships between social equals. You will notice that Shylock's refusal to dine with Bassanio is treated in the play as an act of hostility. This was a common view in Elizabethan times; religious and dietary laws which kept Jews from socializing with Christians on a friendly basis were seen as sinister, an expression of untrustworthy intentions.

  5. APPEARANCES CAN BE DECEIVING

    The Merchant of Venice warns us repeatedly that outer beauty is not necessarily evidence of inner worth. As the motto on the gold casket puts it: "All that glisters is not gold." Some readers feel that the emphasis on this moral is out of place in the play. After all, Portia the heroine turns out to be as good and wise as she is beautiful and rich. Another way of looking at this theme's relation to the action is to say that Shakespeare has gone beyond the obvious, cliched implications of his theme to hit on a deeper reality. Even a beautiful, desirable woman deserves to be loved for her inner self, not just collected like an object of art. The rewards from all worthwhile relationships can be achieved only when the partners open their hearts to each other. By the same reasoning, money itself is not necessarily a bad thing- but you must be careful to love it for the good it can do. Shylock's failing is not that he is rich, but that he seeks to use his money for an evil end- revenge.

STYLE

Language is the greatest expression of Shakespeare's genius, a leading reason why his works are still read and enjoyed nearly four centuries after they were written. At the same time Shakespeare's language can be intimidating. When you pick up a Shakespearean play, the first thing you will notice is that the characters speak poetry, not prose. Your immediate reaction may be that this is artificial and stilted. No human being talks the way Shakespeare's characters do. If you feel that way, you are absolutely right. The poetry in Shakespeare's plays was not meant to be realistic. Spoken poetry is an artistic convention- just like singing in opera, or surreal editing in a rock video. Just as you can appreciate the succession of images in a video without caring about whether they are realistic, you can enjoy the beautiful phrases, apt images and surprising insights in Shakespeare without bothering to worry whether any real-life individual would think to say such things spontaneously.

It is impossible to explain in a few brief paragraphs exactly why Shakespeare's use of language is so special. However, a few examples may sharpen your appreciation of his unique style.

Any writer might observe that young aristocrats are like proud ships. Shakespeare would never have been content with such a flat, unilluminating comparison. In Act II, Scene VI, he has Gratiano say:

How like a younger or a prodigal
The scarfed bark puts from her native bay,
Hugged and embraced by the strumpet wind!
How like the prodigal doth she return,
With over-weathered ribs and ragged sails,
Lean, rent, and beggared by the strumpet wind!

Few writers can carry a simile even this far without falling prey to muddled thinking, yet this is only one of several passages in which Shakespeare makes extended comparisons between the young gentlemen of Venice and their merchant ships.

Fewer writers still can use stylized, self-consciously poetic imagery without sounding pompous. Shakespeare's images are not merely pretty; they are almost always logical and apt. Furthermore, Shakespeare had an unerring sense of timing, a necessary quality in a playwright. He knew when to change pace for dramatic effect. Consider, for example, Bassanio's speech in Act I, Scene I, lines 123-138. Bassanio uses many high-sounding words to describe his problem. When it comes down to the final line of his speech, though, he manages to shift gears and sum up the situation in words of one syllable- "How to get clear of all the debts I owe." The audience, having been carried along on Bassanio's lofty rhetoric, is suddenly let down to earth with a thud.

One of the particular strengths of The Merchant of Venice is that the language used by the various characters is appropriate to their roles in the drama. Shylock's speech is gruff and straightforward. The Prince of Morocco's is as dazzling as his personality. Salerio, Solanio, and Gratiano are clever: in some of their speeches Shakespeare seems to be giving a virtuoso performance. If he crosses the line between exuberance and vulgarity, it's only to reinforce their characterizations.

Portia's language is perhaps the most unexpected in the play and goes far to show why audiences have found her such a memorable character. Although she is the romantic heroine, Portia's speech tends to be witty and rigorously logical.

She often uses a vocabulary that belongs to the world of financial transactions- words which draw our attention to the play's comparison of love and wealth, of money lent for interest and the emotional investments of marriage and friendship. Speaking of the "lott'ry of my destiny" (Act II, scene i, line 15), Portia goes on to note that her late father "hedged" his bet somewhat by the terms of his eccentric will. Suddenly, we realize that Portia is not referring to herself as a player in the lottery of destiny, but as the prize, waiting to be won.

Like most Shakespearean plays, The Merchant of Venice boasts many quotable lines- phrases such as "love is blind"- which you have probably read and even used many times without ever realizing where they came from. As you become more familiar with Shakespeare's works you will come to realize that such phrases are never just quotable nuggets, epigrams which demonstrate the author's clever "way with words." Shakespeare is a great dramatic poet because he knew how to use his best lines in context, to deepen our understanding of his characters and themes and to further the action of the play.

ELIZABETHAN ENGLISH

All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice are apparent even between parents and their children. If language differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will diverge markedly from the English that is used today. The following information on Shakespeare's language will help a modern reader to a fuller understanding of The Merchant of Venice.

MOBILITY OF WORD CLASSES

Adjectives, nouns, and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular classes in Shakespeare's day. Adjectives were frequently used adverbially:

You grow exceeding strange

(I, i, 67)

nouns could be used as adjectives, as in:

And other of such vinegar aspect

(I, i, 54)

and:

By the fool multitude

(II, ix, 26)

Nouns could also occur as verbs. In Act I, Scene III, line 170, for example, purse is used to mean "put in my purse":

And I will go and purse the ducats straight.

And verbs could be used as nouns. In Act II, Scene IX, line 90, commends is used where a modern speaker would use "commendations":

From whom he bringeth sensible regreets,
To wit, besides commends and courteous breath...

CHANGES IN WORD MEANING

The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be illustrated by the fact that shuttle has extended its meaning from a "device used in weaving" to a "space vehicle." Many of the words in Shakespeare still exist today but their meanings have changed. The change may be small, as in the case of faithless (II, iv, 37) meaning "unbelieving," or more fundamental, so that sentences (I, ii, 10) meant "maxims or proverbs," very (II, ii, 105) meant "true," naughty (III, ii, 18) was equivalent to "wicked," and excrement (III, ii, 87) meant anything that grew out, including one's hair.

VOCABULARY LOSS

Words not only change their meanings, but are frequently discarded from the language. In the past, leman meant "sweetheart" and sooth meant "truth." The following words used in The Merchant of Venice are no longer common in English but their meanings can usually be gauged from the contexts in which they occur.

ARGOSIES (I, i, 9)
merchant ships

ALABLASTER (I, i, 84)
alabaster

OPE (I, i, 94)
open

MOE (I, i, 108)
more

NEAT (I, i, 112)
cow

STROND (I, i, 171)
strand

COLT (I, ii, 39)
foolish, young person

THROSTLE (I, ii, 59)
song thrush

STEAD (I, iii, 6)
assist, supply

BETHINK (I, iii, 29)
consider

USANCE (I, iii, 42)
interest

EANLINGS (I, iii, 76)
lambs

PILLED (I, iii, 81)
stripped

DOIT (I, iii, 137)
small coin

O'ERSTARE (II, i, 27)
outstare

CATER-COUSINS (II, ii, 130)
close friends

OSTENT (II, ii, 193)
appearance, show

BESHREW (II, vi, 52)
may evil befall

CERECLOTH (II, vii, 51)
cloth used in embalming

INSCULPED (II, vii, 57)
engraved

MARTLET (II, ix, 27)
martin or swallow (bird)

IWIS (II, ix, 67)
certainly

POST (II, ix, 99)
messenger

PEISE (III, ii, 22)
weigh, expand

ECHE (III, ii, 23)
lengthen

CRISPED (III, ii, 92)
curled

MAGNIFICOES (III, ii, 280)
dignitaries

BOOTLESS (III, iii, 20)
useless

EGAL (III, iv, 13)
equal

ENOW (III, v, 21)
enough

MEETEST (IV, i, 115)
most ready

CURELESS (IV, i, 142)
without cure, irreparable

COPE (IV, i, 412)
give in exchange

AND (V, i, 176)
if

VERBS

Shakespearean verb forms differ from modern usage in three main ways:

  1. Questions and negatives could be formed without using do/did, as when Nerissa asks Portia:

    How like you the young German?

    (I, ii, 80)

    where today we would say: "How do you like the young German?", or where Bassanio insists:

    I like not fair terms, and a villain's mind

    (I, iii, 175)

    where modern usage demands: "I do not like fair terms and a villain's mind." Shakespeare had the option of using forms a and b whereas contemporary usage permits only the a form:

    a b

    What is the fool saying? What says that fool?

    (II, v, 43)

    What did he say? What said he?

    You do not look well You look not well

    You did not look well You looked not well

  2. A number of past participles and past tense forms are used which would be ungrammatical today. Among these are:

    spoke for "spoken": "We have not spoke us yet" (II, iv, 5); undertook for "undertaken":

    'Tis vile unless it may be quaintly ordered,
    And better in my mind not undertook

    (II, iv, 6-7)

    writ for "wrote":

    And whiter than the paper it writ on
    Is the fair hand that writ

    (II, iv, 13-14)

    flidge for "fledged":

    And Shylock (for his own part) knew the bird
    was flidge

    (III, i, 27);

    and confiscate for "confiscated":

    thy lands and goods
    Are by the laws of Venice confiscate.

    (IV, i, 306-7)

    3. Archaic verb forms sometimes occur with there, thou, and he/she/it:

    ...there be land-rats

    (I, iii, 20);

    What Jessica! Thou shalt not gormandize
    As thou hast done with me.

    (II, v, 3-4);

    He hath disgraced me...

    (III, i, 48).

PRONOUNS

Shakespeare and his contemporaries had one extra pronoun, thou, which could be used in addressing a person who was one's equal or social inferior. You was obligatory if more than one person was addressed:

Lorenzo and Salerio, welcome hither,
If that the youth of my new interest here
Have power to bid you welcome.

(III, ii, 219-21)

but it could also be used to indicate respect. All the characters, for example, address the Duke of Venice as "you" in Act IV, Scene I:

Your grace hath ta'en great pains.

Frequently, a person in power uses thou to a child or a subordinate but is addressed you in return. Antonio, for example, uses thou to Shylock but receives you in response in Act I, Scene III:

Antonio: I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

....

Shylock: Why look you how you storm!
I would be friends with you and have your love

To switch from you to thou could indicate a loss of respect. This happens in Act IV, Scene I when Portia realizes that Shylock will not change his mind about the bond:

I pray you let me look upon the bond.

(IV, i, 221)

For, as thou urgest justice, be assured
Thou shalt have justice more than thou desir'st.

(IV, i, 311-12)

One further pronominal usage warrants a comment. Animate and inanimate third person pronouns were sometimes interchangeable. Who is used for "which" in:

The first, of gold, who this inscription bears

(II, vii, 4)

and his occurs instead of "its" in:

There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings.

(V, i, 60-61)

PREPOSITIONS

Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they are today and so we find several uses in The Merchant of Venice that would have to be modified in contemporary speech. These include: by for "about":

How say you by the French lord

(I, ii, 52)

by for "for" in:

What many men desire,- that "many" may be meant
By the fool multitude that choose by show

(II, ix, 25-26)

on for "against" in:

And be my vantage to exclaim on you

(III, ii, 174)

in for "on" in:

...In such a night as this

(V, i, 1)

and of for "from" in:

No woman had it, but a civil doctor,
Which did refuse three thousand ducats of me.

(V, i, 210-11)

MULTIPLE NEGATION

Contemporary English requires only one negative per statement and regards such utterances as "I haven't none" as nonstandard. Shakespeare often uses two or more negatives for emphasis, as when Portia asks:

...is it not hard Nerissa, that I cannot choose one,
nor refuse none?

(I, ii, 25-26)

or the Prince of Morocco insists "Nor will not" (II, i, 43) or Lorenzo claims:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons.

(V, i, 83-85)

SOURCES

Shakespeare borrowed both of the basic plot ideas for The Merchant of Venice from other sources.

The story of the Christian merchant who risks a pound of his own flesh to secure a loan from a Jewish moneylender comes from an Italian novella entitled Il Pecorone (The Dunce) by Giovanni Fiorentino. In this version of the tale there is also a beautiful lady of "Belmonte," but she has only one suitor, Giannetto, who tries three times to win her hand. (All Giannetto has to do to win the lady's hand in marriage is to possess her sexually; what he does not know on his first two visits to her is that the wine she serves at dinner is heavily laced with a sleeping potion!) In the meantime, Giannetto's godfather, Ansaldo, has borrowed heavily from a Jewish moneylender to finance Giannetto's adventures. As in The Merchant of Venice, the lady of "Belmonte" eventually disguises herself as a lawyer to save her husband's benefactor from having to pay his pound of flesh. Even the sub-plot of the ring appears in this source; however, the sub-plots involving the romances of Gratiano and Nerissa, and Lorenzo and Jessica do not occur.

The story of the three caskets appears in a Greek romance of A.D. 800 called Barlaam and Josophat, and there are probably still-earlier folklore versions. We also find the three-caskets theme in a fourteenth- century story collection called the Gesta Romanorum which first appeared in an English translation in 1577. In the Gesta Romanorum version of this tale, the mottos inscribed on the caskets are rather similar to those used by Shakespeare; however, it is the would-be bride who is forced to choose among the three caskets in order to prove that she is worthy of marrying the son of the King of Rome.

Shakespeare may not even have been the first writer to combine these two plots in a single work. This may have been done previously in a play called The Jew. Since the manuscript of The Jew no longer exists, we have no way of knowing how much, if any, of the dramatic structure of The Merchant of Venice was borrowed from this earlier drama. Some scholars have argued that the interweaving of the two plots is so skillful that it could only have been accomplished by a master dramatist, and therefore must be original with Shakespeare. Others are more willing to concede that the basic plot structure of The Merchant of Venice may have been borrowed by Shakespeare from one of his predecessors.

Either way, it is the eloquent use of both plot ideas to illuminate the larger theme of love as a form of wealth which raises the play to the level of a masterpiece- surely a Shakespeare original.

One of the most famous theaters of all time is the Globe Theatre. It was one of several Shakespeare worked in during his career and many of the greatest plays of English literature were performed there. Built in 1599 for L600 just across the River Thames from London, it burned down in 1613 when a spark from a cannon in a battle scene in Shakespeare's Henry VIII set fire to the thatched roof. The theater was quickly rebuilt and it survived until 1644. No one knows exactly what the Globe looked like but some scholarly detective work has given us a fairly good idea. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., has a full-scale re-creation of the Globe.

When it was built, the Globe was the latest thing in theater design. It was a three-story octagon, with covered galleries surrounding an open yard some 50 feet across. Three sides of the octagon were devoted to the stage and backstage areas. The main stage was a raised platform that jutted into the center of the yard or pit. Behind the stage was the tiring house- the backstage area where the actors dressed and waited for their cues. It was flanked by two doors and contained an inner stage with a curtain used when the script called for a scene to be discovered. (Some scholars think the inner stage was actually a tent or pavilion that could be moved about the stage.) Above the inner stage was the upper stage, a curtained balcony that could serve as the battlements in Hamlet or for the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Most of the action of the play took place on the main and upper stages.

The third story held the musicians' gallery and machinery for sound effects and pyrotechnics. Above all was a turret from which a flag was flown to announce, "Performance today." A roof (the shadow) covered much of the stage and not only protected the players from sudden showers but also contained machinery needed for some special effects. More machinery was under the stage, where several trap doors permitted the sudden appearance in a play of ghosts and allowed actors to leap into rivers or graves, as the script required.

For a penny (a day's wages for an apprentice), you could stand with the "groundlings" in the yard to watch the play; another penny would buy you a seat in the upper galleries, and a third would get you a cushioned seat in the lower gallery- the best seats in the house. The audience would be a mixed crowd- sedate scholars, gallant courtiers, and respectable merchants and their families in the galleries; rowdy apprentices and young men looking for excitement in the yard; and pickpockets and prostitutes taking advantage of the crowds to ply their trades. And crowds there would be- the Globe could probably hold 2000 to 3000 people, and even an ordinary performance would attract a crowd of 1200.

The play you came to see would be performed in broad daylight during the warmer months. In colder weather, Shakespeare's troupe appeared indoors at Court or in one of London's private theaters. There was no scenery as we know it but there are indications that the Elizabethans used simple set pieces such as trees, bowers, or battle tents to indicate location. Any props needed were readied in the tiring house by the book keeper (we'd call him the stage manager) and carried on and off by actors. If time or location were important, the characters usually said something about it. Trumpet flourishes told the audience an important character was about to enter, rather like a modern spotlight, and a scene ended when all the characters left the stage. (Bodies of dead characters were carried off stage.) Little attention was paid to historical accuracy in plays such as Julius Caesar or Macbeth and actors wore contemporary clothing. One major difference from the modern theater was that all female parts were played by young boys; Elizabethan custom did not permit women to act.

If the scenery was minimal, the performance made up for it in costumes and spectacle. English actors were famous throughout Europe for their skill as dancers, and some performances ended with a dance (or jig). Blood, in the form of animal blood or red paint, was lavished about in the tragedies; ghosts made sudden appearances amid swirling fog; thunder was simulated by rolling a cannon ball along the wooden floor of the turret or by rattling a metal sheet. The costumes were gorgeous- and expensive! One "robe of estate" alone cost L19, a year's wages for a skilled workman of the time. But the costumes were a large part of the spectacle that the audience came to see, and they had to look impressive in broad daylight, with the audience right up close.

You've learned some of the conventions of the Globe Theatre, a theater much simpler than many of ours but nevertheless offering Shakespeare a wide range of possibilities for staging his plays. Now let's see how specific parts of The Merchant of Venice might have been presented at the Globe.

The absence of scenery made the stage at the Globe very flexible. Scenes could be shifted from place to place slowing down the action. You can get a good idea of how this might have worked out if you look at the second act of The Merchant of Venice. This act has nine different scenes. If a curtain had to be lowered and scenery moved for each scene it would take many hours to perform, and the audience would have been a little restless. But since there were no curtains or scenery, the action could speed right along. Imagine how it might have been performed:

The first scene, in Portia's house, could be set on the inner stage. For the second scene, on the street, the action moves out to the main stage. Then up to the balcony for Scene III in Shylock's house. Back to the main stage for the street setting of the next three scenes- one of the doors would represent Shylock's house in Scene VI, and Jessica would look out the window above it before she came down to elope with Lorenzo. Scene VII, back in Portia's house, could use the inner stage, then back onto the main stage for a street in Venice in Scene VIII, and finally a return to the inner stage, Portia's house, in Scene IX.

But don't assume that the main stage is limited to outdoor scenes. It would be needed as well for any indoor scene with more than a few characters. For example, in Act III, Scene II, the action might begin in the inner stage for the casket-choosing part of the scene, but would probably have to spill out onto the main stage to provide room for everyone when Lorenzo and Jessica arrive. Even so, once those characters have walked off, the neutral stage can become a street again for the next scene.

THE STORY

THE PLAY


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